Conducting Biotech Research Remotely

Alex Jackson (MBP '20) talks about transitioning from in-person research to remote in Northwestern Engineering's Master of Biotechnology program (MBP), and then back again.

Alex Jackson (MBP '20) was mere days into a new research project in Northwestern Engineering's Master of Biotechnology program (MBP) when COVID-19 was named a global pandemic in March 2020. 

Jackson joined McCormick School of Engineering Professor Danielle Tullman-Ercek’s lab to study how bacteria form enclosed organelles called bacterial microcompartments to make sustainable products more efficiently. His project specifically focused on how a protein called PduN helps form that microcompartment structure.

The work excited him. He could learn new scientific techniques to make exciting discoveries. What Jackson was not expecting to learn was how to take an in-person research project, transform it into something to explore remotely, and then transition it back to the lab with new safety precautions. With COVID-19 forcing Northwestern to suspend in-person courses and research opportunities in March, that was just what Jackson did. 

The shift to working fully online was easier than expected, thanks to work done early on with the project.

"Just before we went remote, we got some exciting preliminary results that we wanted to follow up on, but couldn’t," said Tullman-Ercek, MBP director. "As you can imagine, this was a bit frustrating, but it gave us the opportunity to reflect on our preliminary results and do some informative computational studies on our PduN protein."

Jackson remained fully online through June. Then, he and Tullman-Ercek began conceptualizing a return to the lab following new COVID-19 safety precautions. Those guidelines included lab capacity limits, new personal protective equipment, rearranging the lab and office spaces to keep work stations socially distanced, and strict procedures for cleaning work areas at the start and end of each shift.

They knew the biggest challenge would be making the most of limited lab time due to capacity restrictions. More advanced planning was necessary, and the experience became a crash course in time management. 

"Having the time to work on the project remotely gave me the chance to focus on it and then experiment with what we had modeled after we were able to get back in the lab," Jackson said. "I learned how to prioritize work that could be done outside of the lab to maximize my efficiency when I was given the chance to go back into the lab."

Still, Jackson's research experience was successful. His project, paired with follow-up studies, showed that PduN is essential for the formation of a closed microcompartment shell. This is important to understand to repurpose them for biochemical production. His findings also led the lab on a path toward creating new antibiotics that are specific to pathogens, such as Salmonella, that use these organelles. 

Jackson is applying the lessons he learned as a research associate at Mosaic Biosciences, a drug discovery and development company in Boulder, Colorado. Of all the things he learned in MBP, it was the opportunity to step back and think about his project from a macro perspective at the onset of the pandemic that was the most beneficial. It is an exercise he recommends to prospective students. 

"Take the time to think about what your goals are and how this program can help you get there," Jackson said. "This program allows an amazing opportunity to get world-class research experience in any area that you may be interested in. The research experience I gained from this program gave me the opportunity to keep learning after graduating and working to be successful in industry."

McCormick News Article